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Understanding Jordan’s parliamentary election

Encouraged by uprisings in neighbouring countries, Jordanians have taken to the streets to demand political reforms.
Last modified: 22 Jan 2013 15:12

Jordan’s parliamentary election on Wednesday is expected to be no different from previous elections held in the country in the last twenty years. It stops short of people’s reform demands made clear in the last two years of continuous peaceful protests.

Encouraged by uprisings in neighbouring countries, Jordanians have taken to the streets to demand political reforms and a more representative parliament. They want a constitutional monarchy, where the powers of the King become limited, and the Prime Minister is elected as the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc rather than appointed from outside parliament by the monarch.

The opposition’s main problem with elections is the electoral law that’s been in place since 1993. The law only allows each person to vote for only one candidate. The opposition says that vote usually goes to the candidate running from one’s tribe rather than to someone with a solid political platform.

The end result is a parliament largely made up of pro-government tribal figures known for their family names and tribal power rather than their policies. Other demands include a fairer and more proportional distribution of seats across the country.

Sparsely populated tribal areas are said to be overrepresented, while densely populated urban areas with a high concentration of Muslim Brotherhood members and Jordanians of Palestinian origin go underrepresented. The southern tribal governorate of Al Karak with a population of 200,000 sends ten MPs to parliament, while Zarqa, with a population of almost one million, sends eleven MPs to parliament.Zarqa is home to a large number of Palestinian Jordanians.

What the opposition, made up mostly of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, wanted was an electoral law similar to the one implemented only once in 1989. Back then, people voted for up to eight candidates in their districts.

Such a law allowed a person, if tribally affiliated, to vote for a relative because failing to do so could create family problems. Then one could also vote for a friend, a neighbor, a female candidate, a Christian, and even an opposition figure from the Muslim Brotherhood. The result was a truly representative parliament.

But a strong parliament was no longer in Jordan’s favour for regional strategic reasons. Ahead of the 1993 election, Jordan was entertaining the idea of signing a peace treaty with Israel. The intelligence service advised on an electoral law that produces a tribal, pro-government “headache-free” parliament and easily endorses laws and treaties in the state’s interest.

Peace treaty

The widely unpopular peace treaty with Israel was signed in 1994 and ever since the government has refused to budge on the one-man-one-vote law, because it got too used to “manageable” parliaments. Though Palestinian Jordanians make up almost half of the population they are underrepresented in parliament.

They made up only 13% of the last parliament that was dissolved halfway through its term in October 2012. With a large percentage of Israelis promoting the demographic argument that Jordan should naturally be the alternative homeland for Palestinians, the last thing Jordan wants is to hand Israel evidence for its argument by having a truly representative parliament.

Since 1993 and the introduction of the one-man-one vote law, the Muslim Brotherhood ran in all but three parliamentary elections, including Wednesday’s, which the movement is boycotting once again.

Leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood say the electoral law not only prevents them from winning the number of seats that reflects their considerable influence on the street, but also complain of vote rigging that further reduces the number of seats they could harvest. But why won’t the government return to an electoral law similar to the 1989 law?

Opposition figures I spoke to told me the government is not interested in reform and fears handing more power to the popular Muslim Brotherhood. Limiting the monarch’s constitutional powers is also out of the question. Jordan is a strategic US and western ally placed in a turbulent region, with whom it shares Israel’s longest border.

US officials, including President Barak Obama himself have praised Jordan’s so-called reform path because its pace is suitable for the US administration. The US would much rather see sluggish reforms in Jordan than have to deal with an Islamist parliament or government that refuses to communicate with Israel. Maintaining the status quo in Jordan and buying time is the best option for both the state and its western allies.

This leaves the opposition’s hands completely tied. It can’t escalate its peaceful protest movement because people are afraid of the prospect of instability in Jordan due to the bloody war in neighbouring Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood, the main driving force behind Jordan’s protest movement, can no longer mobilize the large numbers of protesters it used to because people are simply not interested in seeing Jordan descend into unrest.

Most Jordanians appreciate the fact that they live in the last stable country in the Middle East region. Escalating could be a risk. It could push the country into a dark, unknown direction. Nobody is ready for that.

This is why Jordan is not about to explode and this is why the government will try to maintain the status quo for as long as possible.